E.J. Dionne Jr.: The two Americas on full display in election

Kentucky Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin speaks to his supporters at a victory celebration Tuesday in Louisville.
Kentucky Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin speaks to his supporters at a victory celebration Tuesday in Louisville. The Associated Press

To understand the disappointment of Democrats with Tuesday’s off-off-year election results, consider what they might have said had two key states, Kentucky and Virginia, voted differently.

Kentucky, a deeply red state in presidential years, has a habit of electing Democratic governors, including Steve Beshear, the popular incumbent who was term-limited. Polls gave Attorney General Jack Conway a strong chance of beating Republican Matt Bevin, a staunch tea party supporter not much liked by the GOP establishment. A Conway victory would have been heralded by Democrats as a sign of the dangers of right-wing extremism to the Republican Party.

Instead, Bevin won, and won big. In eastern Kentucky, home of the state’s old coal mining areas, counties that had long supported state and local Democrats, shifted sharply Bevin’s way. Neither President Barack Obama nor the Environmental Protection Agency are popular in those parts.

In Virginia, Democrats had plausible hopes of taking control of the state Senate and needed to pick up only one seat to do it. This would have strengthened the bargaining hand of Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his last two years in office. Supporters of gun safety regulation poured in money, seeing a chance to deal a blow to the National Rifle Association in the state where it makes its headquarters.

Advocates of universal background checks and other gun law reforms can fairly claim to have helped elect Democrat Jeremy McPike, who held onto an open state Senate seat in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and strengthened suburban Democrats in races for the state House of Delegates. But the NRA was not out of line in boasting on Twitter: “#NRA-backed candidates retain control of the #Virginia Senate.”

But this Election Day brought very different news in other parts of the country. For example, Democrats swept to victory in three open seats on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. The impact could be substantial on matters ranging from voter-identification laws to gun control and, in the long run, the drawing of legislative districts.

Democrats also did well in local contests in swing suburban counties that have been moving their way over the last two decades, including Montgomery County in the Philadelphia suburbs and Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. They won key mayoral contests in Indiana and North Carolina, and padded their already large majority in the New Jersey General Assembly.

In Jefferson County, Colo. – where statewide races are often decided – three conservative school board members were recalled in a bitter battle that drew attention and money from national organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group that receives backing from Charles and David Koch.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was Bevin’s sweep, and Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., saw it as instructive. “There is something to this outsider theory,” he said in an interview. “People are looking for something new and fresh.” Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz all have reason to take heart.

Yarmuth and other Democrats also pointed to low turnout among their supporters in non-presidential years, aggravated by a Catch-22 in Republican-leaning states: Getting too close to Obama and the national party can hurt Democratic candidates in the broader electorate, but creating too much distance can dampen turnout among loyalists.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Virginia’s ProgressVA, said progressives could learn from their adversaries on the right: “They are voting all the time, they are making their voices heard, and they are a loud minority.”

If there was one outcome on Tuesday that could push back against polarization (even as it also gave Democrats a chance to fight another gerrymander), it was the overwhelming victory of an Ohio referendum to overhaul the highly partisan process of drawing state legislative districts. Its supporters moved immediately to push for a similar referendum next year on congressional district boundaries.

While a decline in gerrymandering would, at the moment, generally help Democrats, it would also give politicians an incentive to appeal to broader swaths of the electorate.

But new ways of drawing district lines can only do so much. The one large lesson from Tuesday is that the red parts of the country are getting even redder while the blue and some of the purple parts get bluer. We are still two Americas.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.